THE ORGAN GRINDER by Maan Meyers

The Organ Grinder is the seventh in the collaborative “Dutchman” series written by husband and wife team Maan Meyers (aka Martin and Annette Meyers). The series begins with The Dutchman, starring Pieter Tonneman, the schout of 1664 New Amsterdam. Following that protagonist’s descendants through time, the series has now reached turn-of-the-century New York and Captain John “Dutch” Tonneman of the Commissioner’s Special (Police) Squad.

The novel is less a mystery than a thriller. Or I should say that the reader, like Dutch Tonneman, is distracted by the chase for the actual, physical killer, whom we pick up and follow from the start. Who hired this killer and for what reason/s remain murky until almost the end of the story.

In mid-June 1899, when automobiles seriously begin to compete with horses on New York’s streets, a murderer brutally stabs Delia Swann, a prostitute, and leaves her body in the garbage on the banks of the East River. Destitute street urchins find the body and the key to Delia’s real identity. The killer then follows the path he thinks this token has taken, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Captain Tonneman and his cousin, Inspector Bo Clancy, eventually obtain this token, which leads them to pursue a different path through New York society. They follow Delia’s contacts through high and demimondaine New York society--especially Esther Breslau and her mentor of photography, Oswald “Oz” Cook, both of whom seem to be at the center of the maelstrom. Once they discover the real identity of Delia Swann, the reason for her death becomes apparent. The cops and the killer intersect violently, but the confrontation with the one who hired the killer is far more polite, if also more cold-blooded.

Throughout the novel, New York City is the great silent character. This New York has the gritty vibrant life of a Jacob Riis photograph, no bad analogy given the importance of photography in the story. Meyers’s portrayal of this hard, bustling, noisy, smelly, ethnically segregated, racist city provides the glue that holds all the other characters together. “In the City of New York, the continuity of power and influence of Episcopalian society, despite its vast wealth and interrelated families, had gradually begun to falter in the face of the new immigrants, who by their very numbers were compelling change” (231). Only here will a reader find this wild assortment of people--from Oz Cook and his cousins, members of that “Episcopalian society”, to Esther Breslau, a Polish Jew and immigrant who has made it, to Pasty Hearn, the Irish (a year from leaving Cork) street urchin who goes to work for Nonna from Sicily, to Dutch Tonneman himself. “Tonneman considered himself Catholic, that was certain. But since he’d met the Jewish girl, Esther Breslau, four years earlier and discovered that his own father’s people were Hebrews going all the way back, he viewed (his mother) Meg’s religious ways and views with less certainty”(65).

It’s a good thing that New York City binds the characters together, for the baker’s dozen of points of view become difficult to follow. For me, the usage of limited omniscience and multiple points of view is the greatest weakness of this book. Also, the authors switch point of view in mid-scene without warning, or they obscure whose eyes we see the scene through. Both of these things I found confusing, if not jarring.  Furthermore, the sheer number of point of view characters did not leave me enough time to become particularly comfortable with any of them. Only a few were particularly well developed, and motivation was sometimes fuzzy at best.  As a result, I found it difficult to believe Esther would prefer Dutch to Oz; I found Oz to be the stronger, more believable, more fully rounded character. We get to spend more time with Oz than Dutch.

Despite the flaws, including the curiously deflating demise of the hitman, The Organ Grinder has sufficient strength to be enjoyable, compelling entertainment. Enough backstory is provided, so a reader can pick this novel up and not suffer from not having read the earlier novels. The taut plotting and the crisp writing will keep the pages turning. In the process, readers will fall in love with New York City, if not the Tonneman family, and will likely seek out the other novels.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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